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Surviving the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Can resilience help people affected by the largest oil spill in U.S. history?

On April 20, 2009, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, an offshore drilling rig owned by Transocean Ltd resulted in the deaths of twenty oil workers and created a fireball that could be seen more than forty miles away. Since it was drilling in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, the explosion led to the oil rig's sinking and massive amounts of oil leaking from the seabed. What followed was the worst oil spill in U.S. history. It would take months before the well was effectively capped in July of that same year (installing a permanent cap would take until September).

Along with being ecological disasters, massive oil spills can devastate nearby communities leading to a sharp rise in mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, domestic abuse, and posttraumatic stress symptoms. Following the 1996 Sea Empress oil spill off the coast of Wales, surveys of people who had been directly affected showed significantly greater anxiety and depression as well as physical ailments such as headaches, sore eyes, and sore throats. While symptoms resulting from post-disaster trauma usually peak in the first year, it is hardly uncommon for some people to report problems even years later.

Before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 was the worst disaster of its kind in U.S. history with numerous research studies examining how the spill affected entire communities in Alaska.Those studies were consistent in showing significant problems with posttraumatic stress including avoidance behaviour and intrusive stress. Along with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), many people in the affected areas reported far higher levels of generalized anxiety disorder and depression than in other areas that weren't directly affected. One 1993 study reported that people living in communities near the spill had a 20.2 prevalence rate for generalized anxiety disorder and a 9.2 prevalence rate for PTSD.

Those most likely to be affected were Alaskan natives, women, and people in the 18 to 44 year age group. Problems such as substance abuse and domestic violence also increased. Along with the direct emotional impact of the oil spill, many native groups were affected by the loss of their traditional way of life which also meant loss of income and chronic uncertainty about what would happen to the natural resources along the coastline. The long-term impact of the Exxon Valdez oil spill continues to be felt even today.

But what about the Deepwater Horizon disaster? The multiple attempts to stem the oil being released from the seabed contributed to the sense of insecurity felt by many of the people living in affected regions. Even Homeland Security declared it to be a "spill of national importance." The 4.9 million barrels of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico contaminated wildlife and severely damanged the fishing and tourist industries in the Gulf. Medical warnings about potential increases in rates of cancer, liver disease, birth defects, kidney disease,, and developmental disorders were common during those first few months. This was in addition to the expected rise in stress-related disorders due to the disruptions in the lives of the people affected.

Given the sheer size of the disaster, even communities that were not immediately affected by the spill showed elevated rates of depression and anxiety as well. Still, people who were directly affected by the oil spill, including people in the fishing industry as well as owners and employees of businesses that were closed showed greater problems than those who were less affected. Suicides linked to the Deepwater oil spill were also reported, including the 2010 death of an Alabama businessman whose fishing business had been destroyed.

One of the key factors affecting the psychological problems experienced by people affected by the spill is the resilience that helped them cope. Defined as the ability to handle adversity, resilience is often linked to staying hopeful and making a positive adaptation to change. Though not everyone is resilient in the same way, risk factors such as poverty, life stress, poor education, a history of childhood abuse, past trauma, or other mental disorders can make people less capable to handling the stress linked to the oil spill. There are also strong protective factors that can boost resilience, including having a good social support network, good social skills, spirituality, having a positive outlook, and a good sense of humour.

In a new research study recently published in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, two researchers at the University of South Alabama examined the emotional impact of th Deepwater spill on adults living in affected communities. According to the study authors, Jessica W. Shenesey and Jennifer Langhinrichsen-Rohling, level of resilience is more likely to predict long-term problems with depression and anxiety than whether or not people were affected economically by the spill.

In a telephone survey of 812 Alabama residents living in affected areas (64 percent women with a mean age of 50) conducted one year after the oil spill, people were asked about various PTSD symptoms and economic impact as well as more general questions about resilience and coping. What the researchers found was that most respondents described themselves as resilient and able to cope with what had happened to their communities.

Not surprisingly, people who rated themselves as high in resilience were least likely to report PTSD symptoms, including problems with depression and anxiety. Even when the economic impact was factored in, the link between resilience and ability to with psychological problems was extremely strong. Men were also more likely to describe themselves as resilient than women though this likely has more to do with gender stereotypes expecting men to be "stronger" and less emotionally vulnerable than women. There was also no real age difference in terms of who was most likely to report being resilient.

While the authors report some problems with this study, including the use of a telephone survey which might distort the findings, these results do show how important it is to watch for signs of PTSD and other emotional problems experienced by many people living in affected communities. Along with those who experience job loss or other financial problems stemming from an ecological disaster such as a major oil spill, people with pre-existing problems are especially vulnerable. Developing programs to help boost protective factors such as resiliency, positive thinking, humour, spirituality, and flexibility can go a long way towards reducing the long-term impact of these disasters. Programs targeting young people, including children and adolescents, can teach them healthy functioning as they grow and develop.

We can never know where or when, but it is safe to say that disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will happen again someday. Even while disaster preparation can only go so far in getting communities ready, having programs in place to develop long-term resilience and coping can be vital before, during, and after major disasters. Teaching resilience can help prevent much of the long-term trauma linked to community-wide disruptions..As such, it can be one of the best possible investments in the future.